Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Duke 12-0 (1)
2.  Kansas 11-1 (2)
3.  Louisville 12-1 (4)
4.  Michigan 13-0 (3)
5.  Indiana 12-1 (6)
6.  Arizona 12-0 (5)
7.  Florida 9-2 (8)
8.  Syracuse 11-1 (7)
9.  Minnesota 12-1 (9)
10. Gonzaga 12-1 (12)
11. Creighton 12-1 (10)
12. Ohio State 10-2 (13)
13. Cincinnati 12-1 (11)
14. Oklahoma State 10-1 (17)
15. Pittsburgh 12-1 (18)
16. Virginia Commonwealth 10-3 (19)
17. Wichita State 12-1 (21)
18. North Carolina State 10-2 (20)
19. Missouri 10-2 (15)
20. Illinois 13-1 (16)
21. UNLV 11-2 (14)
22. Wyoming 12-0 (25)
23. Colorado 10-2 (NR)
24. New Mexico 13-1 (24)
25. Butler 10-2 (NR)
Dropped out: Miami, Fla. (22); Michigan State (23)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Available on DVD: “Klown”

In Klown, Danish TV comedians Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam join the ranks of Sacha Baron Cohen and the Jackass mob by turning their antics into a semi-improvised comedy about the vulgar and sometimes very funny antics of confused men behaving like witless boys.

Married Casper is planning on a weekend at a brothel and wants to bring uptight Frank along. But Frank, to score points with his pregnant sweetheart, drags along her pudgy nephew, which you would think would curtail Casper’s coarsest and most explicit plans — but, then, of course, you’d be thinking, which is something that people in comedy of this stripe don’t often do.

There are real laughs in the film, yes, and enough sex and scatology to make anyone in the Apatow-verse blush. It isn’t art, it’s will-o-the-wisp thin, but it might well make you squirt your soda through your nose and all over your couch. And as there seem to be a number of people willing to pay good money for that sensation, there’s glory for you!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

This season's 10 best bowl games

As additional proof the BCS system is broken, two BCS bowls failed to make the list.

1. (of course) National Championship game: Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1), Jan. 7, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
2.  Fiesta Bowl: Kansas State (11-1) vs. Oregon (11-1), Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
3.  Cotton Bowl: Texas A&M (10-2) vs Oklahoma (10-2) Jan. 4, 7 p.m., Fox

After the above three games, there's a major dropoff to this next plateau of bowl games.
4.  Alamo Bowl: Texas (8-4) vs. Oregon State (9-3), Dec. 29, 5:45 p.m., ESPN
5.  Outback Bowl: South Carolina (10-2) vs. Michigan (8-4), Jan. 1, noon, ESPN
6.  Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Clemson (10-2) vs. LSU (10-2), Dec. 31,   6:30 p.m., ESPN
7.  Rose Bowl: Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), Jan. 1, 4 p.m., ESPN
8.  Holiday Bowl: Baylor (7-5) vs. UCLA (9-4), Dec. 27, 8:45 p.m., ESPN
9.  Capital One Bowl: Georgia (11-2) vs. Nebraska (10-3), Jan. 1, noon, ABC
10. Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: TCU (7-5) vs. Michigan State (6-6), Dec. 29, 9:15 p.m., ESPN

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Available on DVD: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”


Few movies can claim to be ripped from the headlines in the fashion of Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, a portrait of the Chinese artist and activist most famous for his work on the Beijing Olympic stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) and his cheeky attacks on his government on his massively popular Twitter feed. In 2011, Ai was held for months by Chinese authorities on charges of tax evasion that were widely believed to be a means of stifling his brazen anti-government speech and activities; only this summer was he granted bail and the permission to leave Beijing, with many restrictions on what he may say and do.

The career, private life and personality of the provocateur who brought such unwelcome attention on himself is the subject of an absorbing film by Alison Klayman, a journalist to whom Ai granted extremely close access both in his workplace and in his home.

Klayman’s film chiefly captures Ai in real-time: creating works for exhibits in London, New York and Munich, agitating for governmental accountability in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, fighting off art critics, censors and bureaucrats, balancing a complex family life, eating his favorite meals. But she looks backward as well, to tell the story of his father, Ai Qing, a noted poet who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and to track Ai’s formative years as a young artist in New York.

You come away with an appreciation of the abstraction, scale and daring of Ai’s art and, even more, a sense of the living man in his courage, humor and restlessness. It’s an invigorating experience.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

That diabolical Soupman

I wish I hadn’t crumpled the advertisement and thrown it in the trash the moment I read it so I could refer to it now. It appeared a week or so ago in the Dallas Morning News in the form of an open letter from some diabolical character calling himself the Soupman, asking for help to make the lives of the homeless even more miserable than they already are.

The Soupman was seeking the help of others to put some homeless people up in the plush downtown Omni Hotel for one night. I think it came complete with room service or a meal of some sort provided by the hotel.

As soon as I saw it my immediate reaction was "What a rotten thing to do."

This was nothing more than an a move by misguided high minded Dallas residents to give some homeless individuals a small, brief taste of a life they will never ever get to know before tossing them back into the gutter just so these high society jokers could feel good about themselves, thinking they really did something worthwhile. How shameful!

Here’s a message to the Soupman, whoever you are: Instead of stunts like this, why not get your friends together to help find these people some form of permanent housing and perhaps even a way to make a decent wage.

Good Night, Charles

I don't know if the films have ever seen a better character actor than Charles Durning. The man melted into his roles, both serious, as Big Daddy (for which he won a Tony) in the 1989 Broadway revival of Cat in a Hot Tin Roof, his breakthrough part as the corrupt policeman in The Sting, and, of course Dog Day Afternoon; and comic, Tootsie and O, Brother, Where Art Thou? among them.

He was nominated for nine Emmys, two Oscars and he won a Golden Globe. In 2008, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild.

Durning died yesterday of natural causes in his New York City home. He was 89. The following is my personal favorite Charles Durning movie moment.

Good Night, Jack

Jack Klugman, an acting everyman, died yesterday at the age of 90 in his Los Angeles home with his wife of four years, Peggy. Most everyone will associate Klugman with (1) his role as the sloppy Oscar Madison in the television series, The Odd Couple that ran from 1970 to 1975; or (2) starring in the title role of Quincy, M.E., which ran on television even longer than The Odd Couple, from 1976 to 1983.

But I will always remember him as Juror No. 5 in 12 Angry Men.

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Duke 11-0 (1)
2.  Kansas 10-1 (7)
3.  Michigan 12-0 (3)
4.  Louisville 11-1 (5)
5.  Arizona 11-0 (9)
6.  Indiana 11-1 (6)
7.  Syracuse 10-1 (2)
8.  Florida 8-2 (4)
9.  Minnesota 12-1 (10)
10. Creighton 11-1 (14)
11. Cincinnati 12-0 (12)
12. Gonzaga 11-1 (11)
13. Ohio State 9-2 (8)
14. UNLV 11-1 (18)
15. Missouri 10-1 (21)
16. Illinois 12-1 (13)
17. Oklahoma State 10-1 (21)
18. Pittsburgh 12-1 (16)
19. Virginia Commonwealth 9-3 (20)
20. North Carolina State 9-2 (23)
21. Wichita State 11-1 (17)
22. Miami, Fla. 8-2 (NR)
23. Michigan State 11-2 (NR)
24. New Mexico 12-1 (15)
25. Wyoming 12-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Butler (19), Notre Dame (23), Oregon (25)

Available on DVD: “Arbitrage”


To look at Robert Miller, the hedge-fund king played with implacable cool by Richard Gere in the slick and suspenseful Arbitrage, is to see a man at the top of his game: rich, powerful, respected, a beautiful wife, a beautiful mansion, beautiful art.

At least, that’s how Miller comes across. But the guy in the bespoke suit with the corporate jet is actually almost $400 million in the hole. Miller has been cooking the books, and unless he sells the firm he’s built from scratch before his accounting scam is found out, he and his empire are over. Kaput.

Such is the premise of Nicholas Jarecki’s impressively packaged first feature, which follows Miller as he heaps one bad decision atop another. There are the casual lies to his wife, Ellen (a sly and quiet Susan Sarandon), about why he can’t come up with a paltry $1 million check for one of her philanthropic causes, and the not so casual lies to his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who serves as his company’s chief financial officer.

And then there is his mistress, Julie (Victoria’s Secret alum Laetitia Casta), an artist he has been supporting, paying for her gallery show and her downtown loft. It’s when the two of them hie off for a midnight drive to the country that Miller’s life literally spins out of control: a car accident, a death, a panicky cover-up.

Jarecki, younger brother of filmmakers Andrew Jarecki (All Good Things) and Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), has a lot to juggle: the complicated financial wheelings and dealings; the appearance of a dogged NYPD detective — a Columbo-esque Tim Roth — who doesn’t like the idea of entitled Wall Streeters getting away with murder, and a young black man from Harlem (Nate Parker) whose ties to Miller, and loyalty, are sorely tested.

Is it a testament to Jarecki’s writing and directing, and to Gere’s performance, that we find ourselves rooting for Miller to get himself out of this mess? Is he, at heart, a good man? Or are his frauds and lies beyond redemption? Is the elite class allowed to play by a different set of rules?

Arbitrage  is at its best when it prompts us to ask these questions. The scenes between Gere and the strikingly good Marling — when the daughter who has loved her father so dearly finally discovers his elaborate deception — are fraught with tension and anger and hurt. But in the end, Arbitrage disappoints a bit. The writing isn’t as sharp, or sophisticated, as it needs be. And the cynicism exhibited by Miller and the circle of traders and tycoons he moves in seeps into the fabric of the story itself.

Comeuppance anyone?

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Duke 9-0 (1)
2.  Syracuse 9-0 (4)
3.  Michigan 11-0 (5)
4.  Florida 7-1 (2)
5.  Louisville 9-1 (6)
6.  Indiana 9-1 (3)
7.  Kansas 8-1 (7)
8.  Ohio State 8-1 (8)
9.  Arizona 8-0 (13)
10. Minnesota 11-1 (10)
11. Gonzaga 10-1 (9)
12. Cincinnati 10-0 (11)
13. Illinois 12-0 (14)
14. Creighton 10-1 (12)
15. New Mexico 11-0 (16)
16. Pittsburgh 10-1 (17)
17. Wichita State 9-1 (15)
18. UNLV 8-1 (18)
19. Butler 8-2 (NR)
20. Virginia Commonwealth 7-3 (NR)
21. (tie) Missouri 8-1 (24)
      Oklahoma State 8-1 (22)
23. (tie) Notre Dame 9-1 (23)
    North Carolina State 7-2 (20)
25. Oregon 9-1 (NR)
Dropped out: Georgetown (21), Michigan State (25), North Carolina (19)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Do-Deca Pentathlon”


Never underestimate the power of residual sibling rivalry to incite crazy behavior. That is the unsettling subtext of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Jay and Mark Duplass’s serious farce. The most gripping scene in this near-perfect little sports comedy is a fraternal arm-wrestling contest that reaches apoplectic intensity.

The combatants are Mark (Steve Zissis) — a chubby, out-of-shape pet-food marketing consultant who is married with an adolescent son — and his brother, Jeremy (Mark Kelly), an unmarried professional poker player. They are determined to settle unfinished personal business: In 1990, while in high school, they competed in a self-devised 25-event miniature Olympics that ended in a tie when a breath-holding contest was interrupted.

Each has since secretly harbored a desire to complete the competition, whose outcome would certify "the better brother." When Jeremy, the more insistent on settling it once and for all, crashes Mark’s birthday party at their mother’s home, their long-simmering power struggle boils up.

Mark, who sees a therapist, claims to have outgrown their shared obsession, but he hasn’t really. The moment Jeremy joins Mark in a friendly, noncompetitive mini-marathon run, the brothers break into a race in which they ferociously elbow each other, and Mark vomits from overexertion.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was shot in 2008, then put on the shelf while the Duplass brothers went mainstream with Cyrus. Although very funny, this film taps into a primal male competitiveness whose force outweighs reason and common sense. As Mark and Jeremy grasp hands and begin to push, you have the sense of observing two beasts locking horns in a life-or-death struggle on the African veld. For Mark, whose doctor has advised him to avoid stressful situations, there is some risk. As he turns scarlet, and the veins on his head pop out, you half expect him to explode.

Because their mother, Alice (Julie Vorus), and Mark’s wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), are dead set against the contest, the brothers try to keep it a secret. Much of the movie’s humor springs from their pathetic attempts to avoid detection by competing late at night or pretending to run errands and rushing out to do battle. Some events, like laser tag, seem more than a little silly. Mark’s inability to let go ultimately threatens his marriage as well as his health.

The film’s casual style works in its favor. It maintains a breezy pace, and much of the dialogue has the spontaneity of expert improvisation. As in the Duplasses’ other movies, the momentum is accelerated by quick zooms, abrupt edits and a restless camera.

If The Do-Deca-Pentathlon refers fleetingly to the brothers’ grown-up discontents, it makes every remark count. When the question "Are you happy?" is posed, it is not as offhand as it sounds, because the questioner is obviously hoping the answer is no.

Each wants something the other has. Mark envies Jeremy’s freewheeling bachelor life. Jeremy looks longingly at Mark’s security and more-or-less stable marriage and makes it a point to bond with his brother’s blasé, longhaired son, Hunter (Reid Williams), who assists the brothers in their deception without becoming emotionally involved.

The movie wouldn’t be as compelling if Zissis and Kelly weren’t also able to suggest an underlying fraternal bond. What passes for love between them is a deep, shared understanding of the importance of the competition.

In the rapidly expanding Duplass output The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is their second-best film, after The Puffy Chair, their mumblecore breakthrough, released in 2006. Aside from its technical crudeness, The Puffy Chair, which was made for about $15,000 and included a few too many "dudes" in the screenplay, was a career-defining film and a scruffy little miracle of truthfulness. So is this, but on a smaller scale.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Available on DVD: “A Cat in Paris”


There’s a cat burglar in Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s A Cat in Paris, a gorgeously rendered animated feature that was one of the five Academy Award nominees at this year’s Oscars.

There is also a cat, Dino, who leads a double life: By day, he curls up, purring, alongside little Zoe, who lives with her mother (the voice of Marcia Gay Harden) in a sun-speckled apartment. But when darkness falls, the frisky feline leaps from the window, dances across a long wall, and heads for the attic garret of Nico (Steve Blum), an acrobatic thief. Together, the cat and the cat burglar make off with cash, jewels, art.

The animators use color and line exquisitely — the humans have sharp, angular features and tiny little feet, the rooftops and street scenes have a wonderful, geometric scope — and the story is engaging and exciting, a caper that appeals to both children and adults. Zoe, quiet and watchful, is still reeling from the loss of her father, a police detective killed by the sinister Costa. Dino returns from his nightly rounds, bringing gifts to cheer her up — freshly caught lizards, or, um, a diamond bracelet. Now where did he get that?

Zoe’s mother, Jeanne, is also on the Paris police force, and she has put one of her men on the case of a spate of recent burglaries. (Jeanne has been plagued by nightmares, in which Costa, her husband’s murderer, is a menacing, many-tentacled beast, painted a devilish red.)

When Zoe follows Dino out of the window one night to see where he goes, the girl gets caught up in a dangerous game of cops and robbers. Inevitably, the paths of Nico, Costa and his crew, and Jeanne and her deputies intersect.

Chases and abductions, a visit to the zoo, and a climactic face-off amid the gargoyles and towering spires of the cathedral of Notre Dame ensue. A Cat in Paris is thrilling, and a thrilling example of traditional ink and paint cartooning.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

December's Oscar Forecast: The Acting Categories

With apologies to today's SAG announcement. Listed from most to least likely to receive a nomination in each category.

Actor
1.  Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
2.  Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
3.  Denzel Washington, Flight
4.  John Hawkes, The Sessions
5.  Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
6.  Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
7.  Jean Louis Trintignant, Amour

Actress
1.  Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
2.  Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
3.  Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
4.  Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
5.  Emanuelle Riva, Amour
6.  Naomi Watts, The Impossible
7.  Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
8.  Rachel Weisz, Deep Blue Sea
9.  Helen Mirren, Hitchcock

Suppporting Actor
1.  Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
2.  Philllip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
3.  Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
4.  Alan Arkin, Argo
5.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
6.  Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike
7.  Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
8.  Ewan McGregor, The Impossible
9.  Russell Crowe, Les Miserables
10. John Goodman, Flight
11. Jason Clark, Zero Dark Thirty

Supporting Actress
1.  Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
2.  Sally Field, Lincoln
3.  Helen Hunt, The Sessions
4.  Amy Adams, The Master
5.  Ann Dowd, Compliance
6.  Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
7.  Samantha Barks, Les Miserables
8.  Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
9.  Judi Dench, Skyfall
10. Kelly Reilly, Flight
11. Helena Bonham Carter, Les Miserables

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Duke 9-0 (1)
2.  Florida 7-0 (4)
3.  Indiana 9-0 (2)
4.  Syracuse 8-0 (3)
5.  Michigan 9-0 (5)
6.  Louisville 8-1 (8)
7.  Kansas 7-1 (10)
8.  Ohio State 6-1 (7)
9.  Gonzaga 9-1 (6)
10. Minnesota 10-1 (11)
11. Cincinnati 9-0 (9)
12. Creighton 9-1 (14)
13. Arizona 7-0 (12)
14. Illinois 10-0 (16)
15. Wichita State 9-0 (15)
16. New Mexico 10-0 (13)
17. Pittsburgh 9-1 (21)
18. UNLV 7-1 (19)
19. North Carolina 7-2 (18)
20. North Carolina State 6-2 (NR)
21. Georgetown 7-1 (NR)
22. Oklahoma State 7-1 (20)
23. Notre Dame 8-1 (22)
24. Missouri 8-1 (24)
25. Michigan State 8-2 (23)
Dropped out: Baylor (17), Virginia Commonwealth (25)

December's Oscar Forecast: Best Picture, Director

Listed in order from most likely to least likely to be nominated.

Best Picture
1.  Lincoln
2.  Zero Dark Thirty
3.  Les Miserables
4.  Argo
5.  Silver Linings Playbook
6.  Life of Pi
7.  Beasts of the Southern Wild
8.  The Master
9.  Django Unchained
10. Amour
11. Flight
12. Moonrise Kingdom
13. The Impossible
14. The Dark Knight Rises
15. Anna Karenina
16. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
17. Skyfall
18. Hitchcock
19. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(I now wouldn't be surprised to see the list cut after No. 6)

Director
1.  Ben Affleck, Argo
2.  Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
3.  Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
4.  Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
5.  David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
6.  Ang Li, Life of Pi
7.  Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
8.  Michael Haneke, Amour

Available on DVD: “The Island President”


The Island President is a mostly compelling documentary about that rarest of breeds, an appealing politician. That would be Mohamed Nasheed, until recently president of the Maldives, and the film focuses on his attempts to agitate for strict global-warming rules at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.

It's an issue that obsesses Nasheed: The Maldives are a chain of low-lying islands off the southwest coast of India, and even a modest rise in the ocean level could wipe them out.

Young and charismatic, Nasheed came to power after working against the Maldives' longtime president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, under whom he was imprisoned, and, he says, tortured.

After detailing Nasheed's rise to office, the film switches to his preparations for the Copenhagen summit, including visits to eroding Maldives shorelines. Director Jon Shenk is clearly a fan. Nasheed comes across as energetic and committed, and possessed of a sense of humor — to raise awareness about greenhouse gas emissions, he once held a Cabinet meeting underwater.

A good chunk of the film shows Nasheed's work at the summit, and while the maneuverings are important for what they tell us about the lack of political will in some nations to make important changes, they aren't as intriguing as the earlier material.

What the future holds for Nasheed is unclear — the film informs us, at the end, that he left the presidency in February. Nasheed resigned after weeks of protests by political opponents; he describes what happened as a coup d'etat

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Available on DVD: “Polisse”


A huge hit in France, Polisse marks the maturation of writer-director Maiwenn Le Besco (known as just Maiwenn professionally). Having developed her own raw and immediate style over two previous features, the director puts it all together here, in a fascinating multicharacter drama about the police who work in Paris’ child protection unit.

These are cops who see the ugliest, weirdest side of society. A daily inundation of kidnappers, child molesters and abusive and incestuous parents and grandparents is bound to take its toll, and that’s really Maiwenn’s concern here. The individual cases are of interest — they couldn’t not be of interest, given the extreme and fraught nature of these issues. But the film’s focus is mainly on the dynamics of the unit and on the impact the job has on the people who do it.

At center stage are Karin Viard and Marina Fois, who play police partners Nadine and Iris. Nadine is going through the inevitable divorce, and Iris, who has a lot of personal authority, is coaching her to be tough and unbending in dealing with her husband. But beneath her facade of certainty, Iris is unraveling, too, and she has become anorexic.

Most Americans won’t know this (though the effects will be obvious), but Polisse has a high-powered cast. Viard, barely known in the United States, is the French Meryl Streep, a grand-scale actress capable of anything, from broad comedy to tragedy. In Polisse, she gets to use a fair amount of her wide range. And Fois, who started off as a comedian, has become an important actress in just the last couple of years, known for her blunt, plainspoken style.

Even the minor roles here are covered by major talent, with Emmanuelle Bercot (who co-wrote the script) playing one of the cops in the unit and Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon) memorable as a wife and mother who shows up at the police station, full of the weight of guilt and misery, to report her husband’s sexual abuse of their daughter.

Polisse is a well-observed study of human behavior in extreme conditions. The police attempt to block their emotions, but they can’t, even when they think they can. They present a surface of imperviousness and long-suffering functionality to the criminals, but then make a mess of their own lives, or flare up and scream at each other. They are normal people doing a job, but they can’t catch their breath long enough to return to normality. They’re suffering from battle fatigue, and the battle never ends.
Maiwenn, who appears in the film as a shy photographer documenting the unit, uses multiple cameras. She likes handheld footage. She likes to show people listening as well as talking, and she likes to have actors improvise, based on a script. The style is documentary-like, in that it feels like life and that anything might happen. There is also a nice sense of being in the midst of the action and right there in the room with the characters.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Queen of Versailles”


"We went to France, and we saw Versailles" is something plenty of people, including yours truly, can claim. But the Siegels of Orlando, subjects of the excellent and unexpectedly nuanced documentary The Queen of Versailles, turned the royal chateau into the prototype for a dream-house project that would make Mr. Blandings blanch: the biggest single-family home in the United States.

When filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began chronicling the Florida couple in 2007, construction was underway on their 90,000-square-foot tribute to living large. Then the economic meltdown hit, and the billionaire family faced foreclosure, reduced their domestic staff from 19 to four people and transferred their eight kids from private to public schools.

It would be easy to mock their version of hard times, but Greenfield, who filmed the Siegels over a three-year period, is an astute and assiduous observer. What might have been mere reality-TV fodder about hissable symbols of overconsumption turns out to be a three-dimensional study of a marriage.

It’s also a timely look at the middle-class American Dream on hyperdrive: aspire, acquire, arrive and then try to keep the "good life" going.

That life is often ridiculous, if not downright revolting. There are the boats, private jets and furs, the statuary, busts and kitschy-heroic family portraits. The Siegels’ story contains all the elements for broad satire, beginning with the 30-year age difference between time-share mogul David and third-wife Jackie.

There’s more than a touch of the subprime to his enterprise, and she’s a former beauty queen whose blond, tanned, Botoxed and flamboyantly implanted looks belie her down-to-earth warmth. She’s a cartoon trophy wife in middle age, but also the even-tempered manager of a bustling household.

The Siegels are up-by-the-bootstraps types, not heirs to fortune, and Versailles doesn’t reduce them to caricatures. David may claim to be a kingmaker (of one president in particular) and conducts some of his interviews in a gilded throne, but his real seat of power is the cluttered den where he watches TV while sorting through paperwork — like many a suburban dad.

In Greenfield’s canny and compassionate view, their post-collapse reality check is an emblem of consumerism as affliction, and surprisingly relatable.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Available on DVD: “I Wish”


The Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda — best known for Nobody Knows, about four young brothers and sisters forced to survive on their own after their mother abandons them — has such an extraordinarily delicate manner with children that his approach can feel like a code of ethics, a declaration of honesty toward these often badly used and exploited performers. The gentleness of his approach, his stylistic unobtrusiveness and the way that children open up in front of his camera are among the subtle pleasures in his latest film, I Wish, a quiet, seemingly rambling story about two exceptionally capable brothers who have been separated by their parents’ bad marriage.

Koichi (Koki Maeda), a boy of 12 with chipmunk cheeks, lives with his mother and grandparents in a cramped apartment in the town of Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu, in southwest Japan. It’s an unremarkable, pedestrian-looking town, or would be if Sakurajima, an active volcano, didn’t steadily dust everything in a blizzard of ash. No one seems terribly bothered by the ash or wears the familiar white surgical masks. Few seem even to notice the volcano, other than Koichi, who reasonably wonders why everyone is so calm. He’s less afraid than puzzled and, as he walks to school, he also questions why the building was built on a hill. "I don’t get it," he says, and not for the first time.

Koichi’s disarming intimacy and Kore-eda’s elliptical storytelling can make it easy to go with the loose narrative flow and skim over even curious details like the volcano. While another director might use the belching crater for its metaphoric resonance, as a symbol, say, of churning emotions, the volcano is of real existential concern for Koichi. He’s a little kid; it’s a big volcano — and an even bigger and more uncertain world. Outwardly Koichi seems so mature, as when he sweeps ash out of his room. But having been separated from his giggly, happy younger brother, Ryunosuke (played by Koki Maeda’s own scene-stealing brother, Ohshiro), who lives in another town with their father, Kenji (Joe Odagiri), Koichi is very much the questioning, learning child.

This is a film, in other words, about growing up. And, like life or at least like life as seen through Kore-eda’s lens, it involves numerous detours, not always with apparent purpose. While Koichi and soon Ryunosuke become the story’s dual cornerstones, with the story toggling back and forth between them, their classmates, parents and assorted others also drift in and out of the picture. At times Kore-eda appears to be losing his focus, as when he lingers over two old men meandering down a street. (There are moments when his winding here and there feels as if he’s doing as much searching as Koichi.) But these characters and their experiences are also pieces in Koichi and Ryunosuke’s fragmented lives.

The nominal story involves Koichi’s belief — he heard it, so it must be right — that wishes come true for those who stand in a certain spot in front of two passing trains. Marshaling some friends and coordinating with Ryunosuke, he heads off to wish for his family to be reunited, a grand adventure that is more persuasive in its emotional reverberations than in its practical details. That scarcely matters and soon becomes beside the point of Kore-eda’s gift for carefully excavating deep emotions that his characters cannot express or may not be conscious of. I Wish tends toward the vaporous and not just because of its volcano; but whenever its children are on screen, lighted up with joy or dimmed by hard adult truths, the film burns bright.

Monday, December 3, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

This will be my final rankings until after the BCS Championship Game. Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Notre Dame 12-0 (1)
2.  Alabama 12-1 (2)
3.  Oregon 11-1 (3)
4.  Florida 11-1 (4)
5.  Kansas State 11-1 (6)
6.  Stanford 11-2 (8)
7.  Texas A&M 10-2 (7)
8.  Georgia 11-2 (5)
9.  LSU 10-2 (9)
10. Oklahoma 10-2 (12)
11. Ohio State 12-0 (10)
12. South Carolina 10-2 (11)
13. Oregon State 9-3 (15)
14. Florida State 11-2 (14)
15. Clemson 10-2 (16)
16. Nebraska 10-3 (13)
17. Michigan 8-4 (19)
18. UCLA 9-4 (18)
19. Texas 8-4 (20)
20. Utah State 10-2 (22)
21. Northern Illinois 12-1 (25)
22. Oklahoma State 7-5 (17)
23. Southern California 7-5 (21)
24. San Jose State 10-2 (24)
25. Northwestern 9-3 (23)

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Duke 8-0 (1)
2.  Indiana 8-0 (3)
3.  Syracuse 5-0 (2)
4.  Florida 6-0 (7)
5.  Michigan 7-0 (6)
6.  Gonzaga 8-0 (8)
7.  Ohio State 5-1 (4)
8.  Louisville 6-1 (5)
9.  Cincinnati 7-0 (13)
10. Kansas 6-1 (10)
11. Minnesota 8-1 (15)
12. Arizona 5-0 (23)
13. New Mexico 8-0 (NR)
14. Creighton 7-1 (11)
15. Wichita State 8-0 (21)
16. Illinois 8-0 (NR)
17. Baylor 5-2 (22)
18. North Carolina 6-2 (12)
19. UNLV (NR)
20. Oklahoma State 5-1 (NR)
21. Pittsburgh 7-1 (16)
22. Notre Dame 7-1 (NR)
23. Michigan State 6-2 (14)
24. Missouri 6-1 (18)
25. Virginia Commonwealth 5-3 (NR)
Dropped out: California (25), Kentucky (9), Marquette (24), North Carolina State (19), San Diego State (20), Wisconsin (17)